“Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Tooele County has a national treasure called Historic Wendover Airfield. Isolated on the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert on the Utah/Nevada border, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Wendover exists. If it weren’t for the gambling casinos that attract thousands of visitors, the place could be forgotten — and that would be a tragedy.
There is a growing faction of people in this nation, and abroad, who would like us to make apologies for things that were done at Wendover, and by the Greatest Generation, to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. For this reason, and because exploration under the big desert sky can be enjoyable, I periodically call attention to Historic Wendover Airfield and note the contributions and sacrifices that were made there for our freedom.
The airfield is located approximately 100 miles west of Tooele City on Interstate 80. At Wendover, take exit 2 and follow it as the road winds its way around a low mountain into town. Turn left on 1st Street just before the overpass at the Montego Bay Casino and drive south across the railroad tracks to Historic Wendover Airfield. There are signs to guide your way, but if you get lost, just look for the orange and white airfield tower, which is the highest structure at the airfield. At its base is the airfield’s operations center and museum.
In the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the U.S. might be drawn into conflicts in Europe and Asia, so he began preparations for ramping up the nation’s war capability. Part of that plan was gaining control of more than 1.82 million acres of land for a bombing and aerial gunnery range in Tooele County’s west desert. By Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, work was well under way at Wendover. On March 1, 1942, only a few months after that horrible day, Wendover Army Airfield (AAF) was activated.
By late 1943, Wendover AAF was a hotbed of activity. Over 2,000 civilians and 17,500 military personnel busied themselves daily with training and equipping heavy bomb group squadrons to take the fight to Hitler and his Nazi industrial capability in Germany.
Life-size targets of enemy installations, tanks, towns and even battleships were constructed on the salt waste, and green air crews trained on delivering ordinance “express mail” to our enemies. The primary airplanes these brave pilots and crews trained in were the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the B-24 “Liberator.”
Advanced guidance systems at the time were used to give bombardiers accuracy to deliver their ordinance. The principal instrument used was the Norden “Bombsight.” This device constantly calculated bombs’ trajectory based on real-time aircraft speed and conditions. The device was linked into the airframe’s autopilot function and allowed it to react quickly to changes in wind, which resulted in unparalleled accuracy.
Other advanced training devices were used by flight crews, who, as they approached the European mainland or bombed targets in Asia, came under attack from enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries. B-17s and B-24s truly were flying fortresses packed with defense mechanisms in the form of machine guns at various locations designed to engage enemy fighter aircraft and defend the plane.
Shooting down an enemy fighter that is intent on destroying your aircraft, while the navigator, pilot and bombardier are trying to maintain heading to deploy their hardware, is not an easy task. So facilities were developed at Wendover to train the air crews to defend themselves.
Machine gun ranges were built just north of Wendover AAF in a bowl of the mountain that faces east onto the salt desert. Men would perfect their marksmanship from stationary firing points, firing pits and other fixtures while engaging moving targets that were mounted on vehicles behind downrange berms.
The most interesting training aid was known as the “Tokyo Trolley.” This apparatus consisted of a railcar with three machine guns mounted on it. The gunners would sit on this car and engage targets as it transited a rail at speeds of up to 40 mph. The downrange target, which was a silhouette of an enemy aircraft, was attached to a jeep behind a berm that would also transit back and forth at speeds of up to 20 mph. These realistic features and methods resulted in Gen. Douglas MacArthur stating, “Wendover’s gunners were the best trained in the Army.”
In all, Wendover trained and prepared 21 heavy bomb groups that conducted a lion’s share of the strategic bombing of Germany. These bomb groups were part of the mighty 8th Air Force, which flew 440,000 sorties against Nazi Germany and delivered 697,000 tons of bombs. This activity destroyed the German military industrial complex and Hitler’s ability to wage offensive warfare. This strategic air victory came at heavy cost, however, as the 8th Air Force lost 5,100 aircraft and suffered 26,000 men killed in action in the skies over Europe.
When you visit Historic Wendover Airfield today, you are walking in the footsteps of courageous giants and patriots — just as if you were in Massachusetts walking across the Lexington green. These men went to war knowing there was a good chance they would never return in defense of our country, freedom, culture and way of life.
Take the drive out to Wendover, read about this history in the museum displays and an array of interpretive signs that make up a self-guided tour through the remains of the installation.
The 1942 control tower looms tall over the museum and you can climb to the top of it and get a bird’s-eye view of the flight line and hangars. Stand up there and imagine the enormous vacant flight line packed with more than 100 B-17, B-24, P-51 and P-47 aircraft. Imagine the hustle, bustle, noise of aircraft engines, and the chaos in the tower trying to keep track of it all. Take a stroll down the flight line to the Norden “Bombsight” building where you can see the vaults that stored these devices. Study the displays on their function and use.
If you ask for directions at the museum, docents can guide you to the remains of the gunnery ranges a few miles north of the base. The firing points, concrete steeped firing pits and the “Tokyo Trolley” track and berms are still in place in the sagebrush, sand and rock of the desert. Most of the administrative area of the range was destroyed when the material it was sitting on was excavated to provide fill for the Interstate 80 causeway across the salt, but luckily, the significant training structures remain.
All of this came to an abrupt halt in 1944, as a gentleman by the name of Col. Paul Tibbets had other plans for the base and how it would continue to contribute to the war effort moving forward. In next week’s article, we will explore the saga of the 509th Bomb Group and the activity at Wendover that ultimately brought the Imperial Japanese Empire to its knees, resulting in unconditional surrender and an end to World War II.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.